Towards A Competitive Malaysia #83 English-Medium Islamic Schools

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Mon Dec 8 15:09:00 UTC 2008

-- Towards A Competitive Malaysia #83 English-Medium Islamic Schools
English-Medium Islamic Schools

M. Bakri Musa

The Minister of Education will soon decide whether to continue the
teaching of science and mathematics in English in our schools. That
decision will not materially change the continuing decline in
educational achievements of Malays. This harsh reality is the
consequence of our national schools – the default choice for most
Malays – being abysmal failures. Most non-Malays as well as affluent
Malays are fully aware of this and thus have long ago abandoned the
system. Observe the steady stream of school buses and private cars
full of young non-Malays heading south on the causeway every
school-day morning. As for affluent Malays, ask where Najib Razak and
Hishammuddin Hussein send their children for their education!

In today's economy, the most advantaged are those with high science
literacy and mathematical skills, as well as being fluent in more than
one language, with one of those languages being English, the language
of commerce and science. Fluency in English is no panacea of course; a
visit to India and the Philippines will quickly disabuse us of that
assumption. The next most advantaged will be those fluent only in
English. The least advantaged would be those literate in only one
language, and that language is other than English. This unfortunately
is the fate of Malays today.

While one could attain high levels of science literacy and
mathematical skills without knowing English, that is true only if
one's primary language is Japanese, German, or any of the other
already developed languages. It is not true for Swahili or Urdu. It is
definitely not true for Malay, no matter how passionately our language
nationalists assert to the contrary. Even with those Germans and
Japanese, the crucial point often overlooked is that they are also
literate in English. Japanese children for example, learn English
right from kindergarten.

These educational deficiencies of Malays are long standing; they
cannot be solved through expensive investments in facilities and
personnel alone. The problem is most critical, and equally most
difficult to overcome, with rural Malays. The cultural, intellectual,
language and other ambience at home and in the community are not
conducive to these children lifting themselves out of their trapped
environment. They need help desperately. To effectively do so, our
leaders must be daring and exceptionally innovative; resorting to pat
answers would not do our students justice.

English Schools in Rural Areas

In my earlier books I proposed setting up English schools in the
kampongs. It makes sense to begin there as those Malays are the ones
with the lowest proficiency in English, and thus would benefit most
from such an initiative. With their already high usage of Malay at
home and in the community, these pupils would not likely "forget"
their native tongue if they were to attend these exclusively-English
schools. This is not a novel or risky social experiment, rather the
resurrecting and improving of an old successful one. That was how
Malays of my and earlier generations received our education. And as
Tun Mahathir noted, we have not become any less Malay for the
experience. Nor have we degenerated into "brown Mat Sallehs," the
expressed mortal fear of the nationalists. Indeed that was how those
ardent defenders of Malay language as Nik Safiah and Hussein Ismail
received their education and enhanced their intellectual development.
Now they want to deny today's young Malays – their grandchildren – the
very same opportunities that they had enjoyed and benefited from.

While my proposal would be an improvement over the present system,
there are problems with its implementation. Politically, there could
be similar demands for such schools to be set up elsewhere, especially
in areas where the background level of Malay in the community is low.
Then we could potentially end up with situation akin to the bad
colonial days where students would be fluent in English but at the
expense of their proficiency in Malay. That would be unacceptable as
Malay is now our national language. Further, it would divert resources
and personnel away from rural areas, where the need is most desperate.

Then there is the ire of the nationalists. They would go ballistic
seeing those village children heartily singing Baa Baa Black Sheep
instead of Nyet Nyet Semut, fearing the cultural and other "polluting"
influences on our young. Telling them that those children would
continue singing our melodious Malay lullabies at home would not
reassure these nationalists.

A more practical problem would be in getting good teachers to serve in
rural areas, although this could be alleviated through generous
incentives like higher bonuses and providing living quarters. Not
readily surmountable would be that such schools would necessarily be
small; hence their academic offerings would be limited.

English-language Islamic Schools

To bypass these problems, I propose setting up English-medium Islamic
schools. Again I am not suggesting anything radical here, merely
extending an already successful experiment. I am simply proposing that
the successful formula of the International Islamic University (IIU)
be extended down to the school level.

Like IIU, these Islamic schools would use English as the medium of
instruction, be open to all, and teach religious as well as "secular"
subjects. These schools could be set up anywhere, not just in rural
areas. Consequently they could be in major towns and thus be of
sufficient size to offer a varied and rich curriculum.

In fact IIU already has its Islamic School, also using English as the
medium of instruction. Unfortunately its curriculum and pedagogical
philosophy are more madrasah-like, the antithesis of a modern
educational institution even though the school prepares its students
for the GCE "A" examination. The emphasis at that school is on
students learning the rituals of Islam and memorizing the Quran. I
would prefer that those be done outside the classroom.

The Islamic school I have in mind would be modeled after the many
excellent Christian – in particular Catholic – schools in America.
Their academic standing is such that they are the first choice for
many non-Christians, including Muslims. These schools are first and
foremost academic institutions, concerned primarily with education.
They are interested in making their students better citizens, not on
producing future priests or on proselytizing.

These schools regularly matriculate their students to highly
competitive universities to become engineers and doctors. Only a tiny
fraction, if any, would end up in the clergy. Likewise, my version of
Islamic schools would produce Malaysia's future scientists and
scholars. These schools are not meant to produce converts to Islam or
turn students into ulama.

There are now many such Islamic schools in America, and their number
is rapidly growing such that the University of California, Irvine,
currently offers a teachers' credentialing certificate in Islamic
Education. Ultimately these schools would lead to the establishment of
an English-medium Islamic University modeled after and of the caliber
of Georgetown. Meaning, they would offer solid liberal education in a
rigorous academic environment but with an Islamic ambience, akin to
the Catholicism of Georgetown.

A more local but historical model of my Islamic school would be our
old missionary schools. They did a credible job in educating many
Malaysians, including our present Minister of Education Hishammuddin.
Just substitute their Christianity for Islam.

English-medium Islamic schools in Malaysia would overcome many of the
problems associated with my earlier suggestion of having English
schools in rural areas. For one, such schools could be set up in urban
areas and thus be of sufficient size to offer a rich and varied
curriculum. There would also be fewer difficulties in recruiting

While English would be the medium of instruction, Arabic (and with it
jawi) would be taught as a second language. Islamic Studies would be
taught in English, but the emphasis there should be on teaching it as
an academic subject, not as theology.

In a typical seven-period day, one period would be devoted to Arabic
and another to Islamic Studies. The remaining five would be for
regular or "secular" subjects, including English, science, and
mathematics. Science and mathematics would be taught as per the
current understanding, and not as some presumed "Islamic" variant. The
curriculum must include the performing arts, and the extracurricular
programs robust and varied to include sports.

The emphasis should be on solid liberal education and critical
thinking. Literature for example would be taught not only as a means
of learning the language but also to develop the students' critical
faculties, as per Louise Rosenblatt's "Literature as Exploration"
philosophy. Students would be discussing Shakespeare's sonnets as well
as Rumi's rhymes.

Using English would go a long way in disabusing Malays of the negative
psychological connotation associated with learning that language. We
would no longer view English as the language of colonials and infidels
but as a necessary intellectual tool. For another, such schools would
truly educate their students, teaching them to think critically as
well as imparting to them modern skills and knowledge. Far too often
what goes on in existing Islamic schools is nothing more than
indoctrination – masquerading as education.

Properly executed, these schools would attract students from abroad,
especially the Middle East. These schools could be viable business
investments as well as contribute to making Malaysia an educational

Since these schools are open to all, they should get state support.
There is precedent for this; the old Christian missionary schools also
received governmental funding. Additionally such schools should get a
generous slice of the huge zakat and wakaf endowments. I would also
impose a surcharge of RM100 for every Hajj and umrah ticket towards
funding these schools.

As can be readily seen, my version of the Islamic school is very
different from the current Sekolah Kebangsaan Agama (SKA). Apart from
differences in admission policy and language of instruction (SKA
admits only Muslims and uses Malay), there would also be profound
differences in mission and teaching philosophy. SKA aspires to nurture
future pendakwah (missionaries), and like IIU's version, is more
madrasah than a modern educational institution.

My proposal transcends politics; it is also be a splendid way to
initiate conversations between Malay leaders in the various parties
for the betterment of our people. This dialogue is desperately needed
as our leaders are determined to go their separate and divisive ways.
They seem intent on erasing any commonality of objectives in the
relentless pursuit of their political goals.

English-medium Islamic schools may prove to be the effective avenue to
propel Malays up the educational ladder. The Islamic imprimatur always
sells. Our language nationalists would not dare oppose such schools
even if English were to be the medium of instruction. We should
capitalize on this. These schools could be the salvation for Malays,
just as Catholic schools were for impoverished and marginalized Irish
immigrants in America at the turn of the last century.

These are the issues I expect Hishammuddin and his senior officers at
the Ministry of Education to deliberate on, not flip flopping on major
policies. That they are not doing so is a gross dereliction of duty.
Unfortunately it is our young who bear the terrible burden of this

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